In October 2020, indie singer David W. Jacobsen released his experimental album “POTUS” — its primary focus being the lives of the more obscure and the more awful U.S. presidents. The goal of the album is described by Jacobsen as “mixing history with storytelling, providing a humanized view of men who have guided America for better or worse (more often worse)” and in that goal, it succeeds. Take a look at a few of the best songs on the album:
“Swing Around the Circle”
There is a certain ingenuity in doing what “Swing Around the Circle” does; it gives Andrew Johnson his own Disney villain song.
Regarded by Jacobsen as “monstrously racist in a time when most white people were pretty racist
“Swing around the circle
You can take your shots at me
Swing around the circle
I care not for my dignity
Do you know how far I’ve come?”
“Samuel Tilden’s Lament”
Similarly, “Samuel Tilden’s Lament” fits perfectly into a musical. It fits right into the scene where the villain (or maybe even the hero) is defeated, raises their fist to the sky, and asks: Why? Why did it happen this way? The story of Tilden, both the man and the song, is the story of a stolen election that resulted in the false presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. The narrative of the stolen election is one that carries a lot of resonance after the manufactured losses of Al Gore, Hillary Clinton and the very first Tilden.
As Jacobsen explains
“Rutherford Hayes is on my mind
Been robbed by circumstance and by time
I’m acting bitter, we all know why
Rutherford Hayes’s job should be mine”
“Crying at Your Grave”
Managing to win the contest of sheer novelty, “Crying at Your Grave” explores an alternate history wherein William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt were lovers. At least, that’s how it sounds to me. Jacobsen gives a more general description of the piece, calling it a “jilted love song.” The song is comical, inviting listeners to laugh at Taft’s tearful eulogy to his biggest enemy and his dearest love.
“I miss our friendship deeply
But I’ve my own road to pave
Though now we are opponents
I’ll be crying at your grave”
With the resounding success of media like Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” which portrays the figures that make up our government as flawed heroes, Jacobsen’s concept album has the bravery to show our presidents (and almost presidents) for what they really were — flawed villains, worthy not of admiration, but of derision, shame and theatricality.
“POTUS” can be streamed on Youtube and Spotify.